A few days ago, a US Airways A320 airplane took off from La Guardia, New York and flew through what is suspected to have been a gaggle of geese. Airplane engines are designed to withstand ingestion of small birds, but that is no guarantee. A jet engine requires a precise flow of air controlled by multiple banks of meticulously shaped fanblades, and when those blades are mangled and clogged by the impact of flesh and bones, it is quite possible for the resulting cascade of shrapnel to overwhelm the engine. Or engines, as appears to be the case, the pilot having radioed the control tower about a "double bird strike."
As everyone in the television-watching or newspaper-reading world is aware, the captain ditched the airplane in the Hudson River and all passengers were quickly evacuated before the fuselage submerged, with no loss of life. And then, having interviewed everyone available and panned around everyone's cellphone photographs, for lack of anything else to say about it, the networks and headline writers started calling it 'a miracle,' and making me yell at the TV. Don't get me wrong: this landing wasn't a routine occurrence. It's a stunning, inspiring event. It's good that no one died. It's also good that no one died on the hundreds of flights US Airways conducted that day without incident. But I think it's somewhat insulting to attribute any of that safe flying to divine intervention.
People set standards for training, materials and procedures and people designed and built and maintained that airplane while other people trained and practiced and did their jobs well. Standard operating procedures are a system of a thousand things that are done every day, in a particular way, even when they are annoying, or boring or time-consuming. Pilots practise the required procedures for engine failure after takeoff. We practise in simulators and/or during training sessions in the actual aircraft at altitude, depending on the aircraft and the company. We recite the procedures aloud in our pre-takeoff briefings and practise them in our heads. I suspect that many pilots who regularly fly out of La Guardia have mentally ditched in the Hudson River many times. It appears to be the best clear path for an aircraft that can manage neither to return to La Guardia nor make the runway at Teterboro.
I don't know how many times I've heard people mock the water landing page on the folding safety briefing card, disbelieving that a commercial airliner could be landed on water and sit there floating like the picture. Up to now I've been citing the
B727 B707 that landed on Lake Victoria by accident. In that case the airplane touched down with gear extended, because the airplane was too low on the glideslope for the intended airport. The gear sheared off, the engines on the wings sheared off--as they are designed to do--and the airplane came to rest right side up and floated until the next morning. I understand that the engines sheared off the A320 too: the last I read they were still looking for them in the river, in order to investigate the accident and get the DNA of the guilty birds.
Dave estimates that not more than a dozen line pilots could have kept their cool and landed an airplane on the river that well. I shouldn't question his experience, but every line pilot knows the drilled emergency procedures and has practice every-single-flight in touching down perfectly straight, wings level at the prescribed speed, every single time. Given that place and time and the placid river, I think many could have done it. I don't envy Sullenberger the chance to try, though. A lot of things had to go right for that to work as it did.
The incident inspires me to greater professionalism, to know my emergency procedures more fluently, to mentally practise what could go wrong everywhere I work, to make every routine landing as perfect as possible and to ensure my passengers are thoroughly briefed and understand the importance of following them. I'm sure more passengers will pay attention to the safety instructions before departure now, enough that I need a at-shirt now, saying "I paid attention to the passenger briefing before it was cool.
Curiously, it seems that most people exited onto the wings in this case, but the United Airlines A320 safety briefing (I couldn't find one for US Airways) advises passengers not to use the overwing exits in the case of a water landing. I would expect the instructions to come from Airbus and that US Airways would give similar directions, but then not all the passengers obeyed the instructions that were given. One article mentions a woman who tried to retrieve her cabin baggage from the overhead bin. When told to leave it she insisted that she needed her stuff. A man interviewed on CNN was proud of trying to evacuate "women and children first," but I'm suspecting that in the confined space of an airplane cabin any kind of precedence wasted time needed to get everyone off the airplane. Likewise at least one evacuated passenger re-entered the aircraft from the wing in order to reach a different raft. Puzzlingly, this article states that the captain refused a lifejacket, as though it was somehow a heroic gesture. What the hell? I find it hard to believe that that refused a basic safety device in order to look bold and captainly on the news. I understand that he was searching the cabin to make sure there was no one left behind, and possibly anticipated having to dive down to escape if the airplane changed orientation while it sank, but why not wear the thing as an example, and just not inflate it.
There have been two air incidents in the last month, both engine failures at take-off, that could have been tragedies but had one hundred per cent survival. The system is working, but investigators will still comb the wreckage for ways to improve procedures, facilities and aircraft in order to increase safety for future flights.